Call of the Wild: Dr. Richard Taber receives the Aldo Leopold Memorial AWard
By Katie Scarvey
More than a half century ago, Aldo Leopold helped this country develop an environmental conscience. Leopold, who write “A Sand County Almanac,” was a leader in the movement for wilderness preservation.
Not long after Leopold died in 1948, The Wildlife Society created the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award. The highest honor bestowed by the society, it’s a lifetime achievement award given to those whose careers have made a difference to the cause of wildlife conservation.
This year’s winner, Dr. Richard Taber, actually worked with Leopold. Taber received the award Saturday in Miami at the annual conference of The Wildlife Society.
Taber was born in 1920 and grew up in California.
“I always liked to be outdoors more than indoors,” he said in an interview from the home he now shares on Hurley School Drive with his daughter, Dr. Kathy Taber, a research scientist at the Hefner V.A. Medical Center, and his son-in-law, Herb Maier.
“I could have skipped school altogether,” he says, adding that he knew when he went to college he wanted to pursue an outdoor profession.
He studied zoology at the University of California at Berkeley and began taking collection trips. On one outing he put a gopher snake and a rattlesnake into paper bags.
Taber recalled the car ride home in a memoir: “I felt a snake crawling into my lap and while its head looked gopher-snakish, I wasn’t quite sure until the other end came along with no rattle.”
He graduated in 1942 with a degree in zoology.
With World War II underway, he joined the Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific for a year or so. At some point, he was asked for input on where he wanted to be stationed, and he requested to serve in Kodiak, Alaska. There, in his spare time, he was able to gather information for his first scientific paper, published in 1946, on the winter birds of Adak, Alaska.
Just when he thought he was coming home at the end of the war, he learned his services were needed across the globe, so he “steamed off to Japan,” where he was charged with picking up the Japanese dignitaries.
In his service there, he remembers doing some things a little differently than they’d been done before. The Marine Corps made more food than was necessary, Taber said, and normally, whatever was left over was taken out to sea and dumped.
Taber knew the Japanese were starving, so he made sure the garbage scows dumped their contents on the beach so the starving Japanese could scavenge the food ó which they did, in great numbers.
During the war, Taber was planning what he’d do when he returned to civilian life. He wanted to pursue his master’s degree and hoped to secure Aldo Leopold, already a well-known environmentalist, as his mentor at the University of Wisconsin.
Leopold told Taber that he couldn’t take on any new students, but Taber decided to come to Wisconsin to study wildlife biology anyway.
His persistence paid off. He did end up working with Leopold, studying pheasant breeding behavior in the state of California for his master’s degree. Leopold, Taber says, was an “excellent naturalist observer” who liked to hunt and fish, as well as an excellent writer.
Unfortunately, Leopold died in Taber’s second year there.
Taber finished his master’s degree and in 1951 completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, where he had done his undergraduate work. During that time, he was working as a research zoologist for the California Forest and Range Experiment Station. In 1955, he began his academic career as a zoology professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
In the 1950s, Taber spent a summer in an Eskimo village, and wrote a magazine article about his experience.
“Everything they did was dependent on the ice,” he said. Over the past 50 years, this village has completely lost its way of life due to climate change, he says.
Later, when he was working at the University of Montana, Taber went to Pakistan as a Fulbright research professor with his family ó including daughter Kathy, who was 12 at the time. There he studied wild boars.
In 1968, he became a professor of forest zoology and wildlife science at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he stayed until 1985, when he retired.
Taber’s influence has been far-reaching. He’s chaired graduate committees for more than 100 graduate students, as well as guiding numerous undergraduates.
In fact, Taber seems much less eager to talk about himself than about the former students who are following in his footsteps around the world, including a protegee in Taiwan who runs the Institute of Wildlife Conservation for that nation.Over his career, Taber published more than 90 papers and has been consulted on international wildlife issues in Pakistan, Chile, and eastern Europe. With Neil Payne, he wrote a book called “Wildlife, Conservation and Human Welfare: A United States and Canadian Perspective.” That work looks at the continuing evolution of the relationship between people and wild creatures, Taber says.
Taber has observed and studied many animals in the field, from wild boars to black-tailed deer.
One thing Taber says he learned through his research and travels was the importance of the local population in conservation.
“There is a tendency for rich, well-fed folks in the city to dream up things that ought to be done,” he says, when the local people who would bear the responsibility of doing it might not be on aboard.
Conservation remains an important issue for Taber. With our expanding human population, “we’re pressing on animal populations all the time,” Taber says. “We’re using wood two to three times as fast as it’s growing,” and we’re coming to an end of unlimited resources, he says.
We’d also be “pretty smart” not to have so many kids, he says ó although he admits that he has three, plus 19 grandchildren.
He also believes that we in the United States would do well to “tighten our belts” and “do less damage.”
When it comes to the environment, he says, our government has “been fumbling pretty badly for a while.” Agencies set up for environmental purposes have had political appointees whose job is “to hobble them and make them less effective” and even “doctor up reports.””When that happens, people in the field are handicapped and new ideas don’t go anywhere,” he says. Still, he says he’s optimistic about our cleverness and creativeness in “figuring things out.”